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Trump or Hillary - Whom does Asia prefer?

Wesley Rahn
November 8, 2016

The US presidential election comes at a pivotal moment for the Asia Pacific region. Will the next president continue fostering economic and defense ties or will the region experience a new kind of foreign policy?

USA Halloween Masken
Image: Getty Images/AFP/S. Loeb

The next US president will inherit a geopolitical puzzle in East Asia and whoever is elected will either be assertive, or risk losing influence in a critical region. What can we expect when the next occupant of the White House opens the file on Asia?

As former secretary of state, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has already presented a clear picture of her foreign policy in the Asia Pacific region. The Republican candidate, Donald Trump, is a diplomatic wild card. The real-estate mogul has expressed opposition to free trade and alliances while taking an antagonistic stance toward China - all of which indicate he would take US foreign policy in a completely different direction.

In a 2011 speech, "America's Pacific Century," then Secretary of State Clinton outlined the Obama administration's "rebalancing" of US foreign policy goals to Southeast Asia.  This "pivot to Asia" would be based on so-called "forward-deployed" diplomacy based on a mix of bilateral security alliances, expanding trade and investment and forging a "broad-based" military presence.

Trump's ideas on foreign policy date back to a 1987 open letter published in the New York Times on why "America should stop paying to defend countries that can afford to defend themselves." In the letter, Trump said that in the 1980s, Japan was able to create a globally competitive economy because the US covered its defense costs. "It's time to make Japan, and other countries that can afford it, pay," he said. "Our world protection is worth hundreds of billions of dollars to these countries, and their stake in their protection is far greater than ours."

USA Pacific Palisades Stimmabgabe zur US-Präsidentschaftswahl
Whoever US voters elect as their president will have an impact on AsiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Nelson

Trump also echoed his business-like approach to strategic alliances during a speech in April 2016. "We have spent trillions of dollars over time - on planes, missiles, ships, equipment- building up our military to provide a strong defense for Europe and Asia," he said. "The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense - and, if not, the US must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves."

Stick with the devil you know

Countries in Southeast Asia are open to closer cooperation with the US, but as Clinton said in 2011, they find themselves "balancing strong economic and geographical ties with China against a longing for closer association with the West."

"The longing for closer association with the West is real," Richard J. Samuels, Director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), told DW. "However, it is constrained by the economic forces and opportunities that have only expanded since Clinton made that statement five years ago." 

The challenges in East Asia that will be presented to the new US president require a balancing act between understanding the region's needs and the limitations of US' influence. This includes developing clear policy preferences combined with creating containment and building preferential alliances.

US allies in the region, however, seem to have a clear preference for the next US president. "States in this region - including China - for the most part back the status quo in international politics and trade," Dr. Pascal Abb, Research Fellow at the GIGA Institute of Asian Studies, told DW.

"Hillary Clinton would represent continuity," said Abb. "Trump, on the other hand, is an extremely volatile and unpredictable person who would introduce a lot of uncertainty about future US strategy. Even in China, where Hillary is seen very critically, the predominant attitude is to side with the devil you know."

Clinton's increasing of American presence in the South China Sea during her term as secretary of state in 2010, provoked ire in Beijing, but the prospect of a Trump presidency also provides no consolation to the Chinese.

"The Chinese are intrigued by Trump's declared willingness to strike deals and by the implication that he might scale back America's role in the region," Colin Dueck, author of "The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today," told DW. "At the same time, they feel that there is something to be said for the 'devil you know,' namely Hillary Clinton. US allies in the region for the most part prefer Clinton to Trump, and find the possibility of a Trump presidency deeply alarming," he added.

China G20 Gipfel in Hangzhou Obama und Jinping
Will the next president pursue Obama's 'pivot to Asia' policy?Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/H. Guan

The pivot to nowhere

US foreign policy goals in the five years since the "pivot to Asia" was introduced have been mired by China's irritation at the US' assertive stance in the South China Sea, the stalled Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the splintering of defense alliances. And the political volatility in the United States unleashed during the election is not assuaging the concerns of their Asian partners.

"US politics have accelerated the recognition by states in the region that it is going to become increasingly difficult for the United States to credibly maintain forward deployment as China's capabilities expand," said Samuels. "They are beginning to hedge visibly - Duterte in the Philippines, Najib in Malaysia. We should expect there will be more hedging as the balance of power shifts."

"The biggest challenge facing the US is its own political landscape," Dr. Gates Bill, Professor of Asia-Pacific Strategic Studies at Australian National University, told DW. "Political divisiveness will continue following the election."

The future of trans-Pacific relations

The centerpiece of the Obama administration's Asia policy is the TPP, a 12-nation trade agreement which has been denounced by both presidential candidates and is being stifled in congress. Experts agree that if the TPP fails to pass, it will be hard for the US to continue with the same level of engagement in the Asia Pacific.

Bildkombo Donald Trump und Hillary Clinton
The challenges in East Asia require a balancing act between understanding the region's needs and the limitations of US' influenceImage: Reuters/C. Allegri/C. Barria

"Regarding the TPP, Clinton has in the past supported this project and is clearly aware of its strategic importance, so I don't think she has genuinely changed her mind about it," said Abb. "Politically, the question is whether she'll have the kind of leeway to pursue it again after the election, and even more importantly, which way the Republican congressional majority will swing," he added.

The next challenge for the new US president will be dealing with China, which will be seeking to increase its influence in the absence of a partnership framework for countries in the region seeking ties with the United States.

"The two most prominent trends will be China's increasing muscularity and the hedging of allies against the relative decline of the US," said Samuels. "The president will need to provide reassurance and stability." 

Trump in his April-2016 foreign policy speech offered a consolatory tone on China, saying that fixing relations was an "important step" towards a prosperous century. "China respects strength, and by letting them take advantage of us economically, we have lost all of their respect," he said. "A strong and smart America is an America that will find a better friend in China. We can both benefit or we can both go our separate ways."

Clinton takes a diplomatic approach towards long-term US commitment in the region. "The United States is proud of our long history as a Pacific nation and a resident diplomatic, military, and economic power," she said in 2011.  "And we are here to stay."

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